Tag Archives: winter 1999

MY NEW YORK DIARY

My New York Diary by Julie DoucetJulie Doucet
Drawn & Quarterly ($14.95)

by Gary Sullivan

On The Comics Journal's ill-fated online bulletin board, a thread started up concerning women cartoonists and influence. Someone posted what seemed a fairly interesting, but hardly controversial, question: Has there been any appreciable influence by the ever-growing number of women participating in "underground" or "alternative" comics? A few names were suggested: Lynda Barry and Aline Kaminsky-Crumb being the most obvious. At first the responses were positive: women, several people wrote in to say, were largely responsible for at least one popular strand of the indy comic: the "autobiographical." Aline, for instance, had "obviously" gotten Robert to delve more into his personal life. But this was quickly and loudly disputed (Harvey Pekar, among other males, was brought up), and within a week the discussion disintegrated into name-calling and insult-topping. Clearly, a nerve had been hit.

The debate wasn't ever really what I'd call "settled." But I do have a sense, having spent an almost embarrassing amount of my days digesting comics (and comix) over the last quarter century, that women cartoonists do tend toward the confessional. Phoebe Gloeckner may be the first cartoonist--"though I'm certainly no historian"--to have dealt explicitly and seriously, using the mode of autobiography, with childhood sexual abuse. And no male cartoonists I can think of can match either Sharon Rudahl or her more popular heir Jessica Abel in getting beneath and really exploring the depths of what on the surface seem to be "simple friendships." Women—Jane Austen comes immediately to mind—have always had a keen sense of "the social." Compare Crumb's social complaints with, say, the late Dori Seda's. Crumb is consistently despondent, hurt, simultaneously insulting and self-deprecating. Seda is infinitely colder; she knows very well what's expected of her, and really of everyone; she simply refuses to conform, and willingly accepts the consequences.

Assuming you buy this admittedly gender-determined premise, it's likely that some part of Julie Doucet's charm—when she broke on the scene in the late '80s—was her absolute rejection of the autobiographical mode, of that kind of social examination and critique. She was a punk, the Kathy Acker of the independent comic book world; she drew pictures of herself cutting men up. Her drawings were primitive-looking, but intensely intricate, heavy on the black spaces, with lots of marginal characters (animated hotdogs, beer cans, even fire hydrants all with arms and legs). Like Samuel Beckett she translated her French into English; unlike Beckett, her native tongue wasn't English (and it showed). She became a kind of cult figure, but her "quarterly" comic book, Dirty Plotte, appeared with less and less frequency. And in Dirty Plotte #7 she made a confession: "it is very hard and stressful for me to come up with new inventive ideas all the time . . . that's why I asked some of my favorite fellow friends cartoonists to help me fill out those 24 pages." In Dirty Plotte #8 we saw the results: Doucet's dwindling output was buffeted with contributions by Brad Johnson, Brian S., Spit, Fej Noznihoj (Jeff Johnson?!?), and others. This obviously wasn't to her fans' or her publisher's satisfaction: the next issue, Dirty Plotte #9, was purely Julie. But the issues were now coming a year apart. Had Doucet dried up?

Thankfully, no. With Dirty Plotte #10, Doucet began serializing her "New York Diary," a first-person account of 1991, the year she spent in New York City. Newly released in book form, it's an extraordinary document—especially for anyone who has attempted to get a foothold in the Big Apple since rents skyrocketed in the '80s.

Doucet moves from Montreal to Washington Heights, Manhattan specifically, 75 Fairview Avenue, Apartment 3B. "The road goes up a hill," Doucet writes, "and on one side of it is what looks like a dump . . . it's actually the people living up the hill who are throwing their garbage out of their windows!" She's moved, like numerous women have over the years, to be with her boyfriend, who as the serial goes on we're told refuses to leave New York City. Just north of Harlem, Washington Heights—though it's become at least somewhat fashionable in the late '90s—was, at the time of Doucet's move, racially mixed, but largely lower class. (Okay, so I'm being politick: People I know who lived there then tell me it was a crack zone.) The apartment is a dump: Doucet's boyfriend tells her that "somebody broke into [the mailboxes] just a few days ago . . . the mailman won't deliver letters anymore!" Though this no doubt sounds like hyperbole to anyone who hasn't lived here, mail service, depending on where in the five boroughs you live, is not something New Yorkers necessarily take for granted.

Doucet and her boyfriend quickly begin to establish unhealthy relationship patterns. Instead of mutually working on their cartoon projects, they watch TV and do various drugs (LSD, cocaine, alcohol, and "whippets," which they get in boxes of 20 from their local bodega). They almost never go out (she's afraid to walk around in the neighborhood alone), spending most of their time home together, intoxicated. Deadlines encroach; the drugs and stress trigger a number of Doucet's epileptic seizures; her boyfriend is seemingly understanding, though he waves off any culpability. The serial becomes quickly and increasingly claustrophobic. When Doucet expresses a desire to go out to a RAW party, the boyfriend dismisses it—"it's at Limelight—that place really sucks"—though they both wind up going, thanks to Doucet's insistence. She becomes pregnant, and almost instantaneously miscarriages. The boyfriend becomes increasingly jealous: of Doucet's "success," but also of the most innocuous infrequent phone calls from her Montreal friends. Slowly but surely, Doucet realizes she's got to get out of this situation.

Her dream is to live in the East Village, something she never winds up doing. Instead, an acquaintance at the weekly New York Press finds her a share in Brooklyn. She leaves without telling her boyfriend, who's now given to sobbing fits—"I can't take it anymore! I'm going to start shooting heroin again!"—and stays in Brooklyn with literature students she "doesn't have much in common with." She stays there for about five months, then leaves for Seattle. It's a shame Doucet didn't stay in Brooklyn. There have been at least two recent Xeric award winners in this borough, not to mention Ariel Schrag, Bob Fingerman, and Rebecca Levi. "This city," Doucet writes, "is not for me. It's too much of a big scary and merciless place to live," which is, I'd argue, all the more reason for Doucet to have stayed here. It's odd to think of a woman who became famous for graphically cutting up men finding New York City "scary and merciless," but, of course, we are not necessarily the fictions we disseminate. The Julie Doucet of Dirty Plotte's #1-9 might be a fanciful version of the Julie Doucet of Dirty Plotte's #10-12, or My New York Diary.

Which, as a fan, is a little hard to swallow. It's an odd sort of irony that the Julie Doucet I fell in love with is much tamer, and much more damaged, than what I used to imagine was the "real" Julie Doucet. I still love her: if nothing else, for taking one of the great Boston poet John Wieners's dictums: "Write about the most embarrassing thing you can think of," to its obvious conclusion. Doucet abandoned in "My New York Diary" her more fanciful impulses—there's not a single animated hotdog, beer can or fire hydrant--but I suspect we'll see, in her future comics, some return. It's the highest compliment you could pay any creative person and I really do wonder: What's next?

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 1999 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 1999

THE TABLETS

The Tablets by Armand SchwernerArmand Schwerner
National Poetry Foundation
($32.95 hardcover, $19.95 paperback)

by Eric Lorberer

Armand Schwerner's death in early 1999 came too soon, sadly, for the Belgian-born poet to see the various projects he was working on to fruition. Yet here at year's end, readers can bear witness to his astounding legacy, represented by three new publications: a volume of selected shorter poems, a collection of Dante translations, and a new (and now, it seems, final) edition of the ongoing long work for which he is best known, The Tablets. Schwerner's magnum opus, The Tablets is a stunning long poem that purports to present translations and commentary of a series of 4,000 year old hieroglyphic texts. Schwerner's genius here is in interpolating the voice of the "scholar-translator" of these texts, a move which allows the poem both its extraordinarily broad range of voice and its labyrinthine depth of meaning. Indeed, from the very first lines of the poem,

All that's left is pattern* (shoes?)

*doubtful reconstruction

we are struck by the impossibility of a unified voice or stable meaning in the poem–and intimately aware that the scholar-translator's conundrum of interpretation demands, a la Schrodinger's Cat, that he'll be implicated in his rendering of the text. And gloriously so. Using plus signs to indicate what's missing, and including his own speculative words in brackets, the scholar-translator develops delightfully uncertain yet musical lines:

O Pinitou Pinitou Pinitou in dry cricket sperm

[break unhappy] my mouth is full of blood Beautiful (Strange?) Liar

I ate in a dream, I won ++++++++++, in a dream

(Tablet VI)

The beauty of erasure and invention thus become swirled in a delicious combination, made all the more rich by humor; Schwerner's poem is truly one of the few works of modernism/postmodernism that serves up a serious meal and yet never loses the savory pleasure of the joke. The whole of Tablet X, for example, surrounds the scholar-translator's bracketed inclusion of Wallace Stevens' famous phrase "the the" with a field of plus signs and ellipses (amply illustrating his admission "I have been responsible for occasional jocose invention rather than strict archaeological findings" (VIII). But ultimately, the scholar-translator's enthrallment with his primary text, as when he notes "a singular confusion of pronouns here. I do not know who I am when I read this. How magnificent" (Tablet XI), mirrors the feeling the attentive reader of The Tablets will have as well.

If the voices of ancient Sumeria are overwhelmed by the scholar-translator's antics, they nevertheless rise to the surface often and genuinely enough to counterpoint the concerns of our modernity. Here, an engraver talks to himself in a combination of sacred ritual and pep talk:

the right words wait in the stone

they'll discover themselves as you chip away,

work faster, don't think as long as you want

(Tablet VIII)

while elsewhere a timeless lament is sounded:

seeing you now after your death, I study, you

invested with such surprise

of movement, look, now, here,

gone, gone back to return . . .

(Tablet XXIII)

Virtually all of human experience is given voice in The Tablets, but the poem's attention to sexuality is perhaps most remarkable. Repression hasn't yet been invented in the Sumerian psyche:

is his mighty penis fifty times a fly's wing? what pleasure!

does his penis vibrate like a fly's wing? what terrific pleasure!

(Tablet V)

But apparently the notion of physical memory has, as in the song of a prostitute/priestess,:

let me open my thighs for your hands as I do for my own that I do you

that my hair thinks of you and remembers you, that my fingers

that the sweat on my thighs/bronze bronze heavily flying/thinks of you

and reminds me of me…

(Tablet XV)

Most engaging is Schwerner's confluence of sex and timelessness, the latter being one of the great themes of The Tablets:

O Oualbpaga I would suck you off longer…………………………longer

than anyone thinks possible, your red sperm was/will-be/is/is-just-about-almost* Time

* tense unclear

(Tablet XVI)

One of the richest elements of The Tablets is the inclusion of Schwerner's "Journals/Divagations," in which the poet muses on his singular creation. Whether identifying specific goals in his work ("The Tablets: formal games and invention give rise to substantive concerns and social reality") or considering larger, not-necessarily-poetic issues ("Good taste is boredom and death"), Schwerner's ramblings, like those in the notebooks of Joseph Joubert, reveal an aesthetic curiosity so powerful it becomes transfixing. At one point, the poet isolates an intriguing issue for at least this reader of The Tablets:

Prose is eloquence, wants to instruct, to convince; wants to produce in the soul of the reader a state of knowledge. Poetry is the producer of joy, its reader participates in the creative act. Thus Commentary and Text in The Tablets? (Is that distinction stupid?)

Stupid or not, it is a distinction that I believe Schwerner's epic transcends. Most often compared to other 20th century landmarks such as The Cantos or "A"The Tablets might also be usefully placed in the continuum of works such as Nabokov's Pale Fire, sophisticated fictions in which a text within a text provides the occasion for an expansive discourse on literary production and consumption. It might at the least be read more and taught more if seen in this tradition, and one thing is certain about this work of monumental uncertainty: it deserves to be celebrated, studied, and enjoyed by more than a small group of devotees.

This edition of The Tablets contains the final, 27th tablet Schwerner composed in the 1990s, which continued the work (begun in Tablet XVI) of detailing the scholar-translator's "laboratory-teachings-memoirs," in which he explicates his translation process and reveals some of the 'original' cuneiform pictographs. It also contains an additional 20 pages of journal notes written since the 1989 Atlas Press publication of The Tablets, and a CD of Schwerner reading several sections of the work, which is immensely useful in confronting the visual and auditory innovations of the poem. Three cheers for the National Poetry Foundation for putting this volume so beautifully into print.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 1999 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 1999

BLOOD SUGAR

blood_sugarNicole Blackman
Incommunicado Press ($13)

by Bruna Darini

Deemed "an alt-rock diva" by the Village Voice, Nicole Blackman is as much a musician as spoken word artist and writer, one who infuses stanzas with such lyrical quality, they resemble refrains. Blood Sugar, her debut poetry collection, pulled from popular chapbooks PrettySweet, and Nice, offers honest, literal poetry, capturing the sentiments of a generation of self-proclaimed lost souls.

Blackman's work appears in major anthologies including Aloud: Voices from the Nuyorican Poets CafeVerses That Hurt, and Poetry Nation. She has performed on over a dozen albums, including releases by the Golden Palominos, KMFDM, Scanner, and Recoil, as well as for NPR, MTV Radio, and SPIN Radio. L.A. Weekly calls her book "a shadow-strewn kaleidoscope of angst, anguish and survivorship," and Time Out describes it as "incisively chilling as it is real."

Her poems, delivered from the points of view of anonymous characters, provide a quietly stabbing '90s commentary. A certain boldness peers through her depictions of insecurity, isolation, and fear, allowing images to resonate, not wallow, resulting in freshly stacked lines: "no one here has goals like get a job, get married, have kids / the ambitions are wake up, breathe, keep breathing" or ". . . we need to kill the pain of all that nothing inside so we take Advil because it goes down like an M& M and we understand that we asked for a real future . . ."

Blackman's use of pop cultural references for her critique of pop culture itself may be overdone. But her spoken word influences, transfixing repetition, and cutting perceptions create a quietly violent work that seeps in.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 1999 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 1999

THE SEA CAME IN AT MIDNIGHT

The Sea Came in at Midnight by Steve EricksonSteve Erickson
Bard/Avon Books ($23)

by Aidan Baker

Steve Erickson's characters inhabit a fragile world, an alternate reality that might as well be our own, but isn't. His characters are always at some remove from their loved ones, whether physically or mentally, and the chain of consequence brings them fleetingly together only to tear them apart. Erickson writes about the forces of chaos that constantly alter and distort the individual's place within history. He revels in a sort of cyber-gothic mode mixed with cinematographic imagery (he used to be the film critic for the L.A. Times), slipping easily into a fantasy that almost seems entirely natural, except nothing is entirely natural in Erickson's world.

Erickson's previous novels are basically continuations of each other, but The Sea Came in at Midnight, his seventh novel, is notably distinct from his previous efforts. The novel opens in a new setting, Japan, and utilizes a new voice, a teenaged girl. Kristen works in a brothel that doesn't sell sex but memories, because the Japanese have run out of memories and have taken to buying and/or stealing them from American time-capsule cemeteries. When the perspective shifts from teenaged Kristen to another character—a shift that is trademark Erickson—and continues on through subsequent characters/narrators in a loop of coincidence, the book loses some of its originality, although it certainly doesn't lose its intensity or validity.

The central conceit to this novel is that of a secret millennium which has been in existence some 30 years before the year 2000 and the "real" millennium. As the character named the Occupant, who calls himself an "apocalyptologist," explains to Kristen: "sometime in the last half century . . . modern apocalypse outgrew God." This secret millennium is delineated not by a normal calendar cycle of days but by such random acts of nihilistic, sadistic, incomprehensible violence as the Sharon Tate murders (9 August 1969 or Year 2 of the Apocalyptic Calendar), the mass suicide of a religious cybercult hoping to catch a ride on a passing comet (26 March 1997/Year 29), or the death of Princess Diana (31 August 1997/Year 30).

Perhaps this conceit seems absurd to the point of foolishness. But Erickson revels in the absurd--the absurdities of ourselves, existence, the world--and while he may waver between profundity and foolishness on that tightrope of absurdity, The Sea Came in at Midnight makes for an intriguing and fascinating read as his characters move through the Age of Apocalypse, trying to make sense of and give meaning to their various realities.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 1999 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 1999

DAUGHTER OF FORTUNE

Daughter of Fortune by Isabel AllendeIsabel Allende
HarperCollins ($26)

by Jay Miskowiec

Before a recent reading from her novel Daughter of Fortune, Isabel Allende remarked that the act of writing had helped her on a "journey through the shadows" after the death of her daughter from a rare illness several years ago. While one can appreciate the depth of such an event and its impact on the artist, this latest work by the Chilean author seems more simulacrum than substance.

Daughter of Fortune traces the life of Eliza Sommers, a foundling left on the doorstep of a British brother and sister in Valparaíso, Chile, toward the beginning of the 19th century. Raised within a strict social and moral code, the girl runs off alone to northern California during the 1849 Gold Rush in search of her beloved. Around her swirls an array of characters, from a rugged ship captain to a Chinese herbalist, inhabiting settings from stuffy drawing rooms to wharves and whorehouses.

The picaresque novel presents a protagonist of humble or low origins (often of loose morals but good intentions), who survives by wit and independent perseverance. The genre's irony and constant juxtaposition of ideas and styles, the positing of the body as a political, discursive site—in general the creation of a heterotopic text—make it possible to call works hundreds of years old, such as Cervantes's Don Quixote and Sterne's Tristram Shandy, postmodern. Such stories, utilizing one of the oldest universal forms, that of the journey, have not so much plot development as a rapidly changing, loosely connected series of episodes, some described in elaborate detail, others summed up in a brief passage or even phrase.

At a reading, Allende called Daughter of Fortune "a mythic voyage of the soul." But events supposedly momentous and defining for the characters reveal little about their makeup or thinking. Rose Sommers, who takes in Eliza as an abandoned baby, has her own sordid past, a torrid love affair in her youth with a foreign opera tenor twice her age. On the evening she loses her virginity to him backstage, the sweaty, portly singer carries her to a golden-framed mirror where, "Disarmed, drunk with emotion, Rose looked at herself . . . and did not recognize that woman in her undergarments, her hair wild and cheeks aflame, whom some man, also unrecognizable, was kissing on the neck as he greedily fondled her breasts." While Allende mined Latin American radio soap operas for her best novel by far, Eva Luna, one might surmise she drew upon the bodice-rippers at the supermarket checkout line in much the same way here.

The couple will carry on until her brother Jeremy finally catches them at a seaside hotel. He bursts in, she leaves with him, and we're off to the next setting, some dingy port on the other side of the ocean. But what does it all mean in retrospect, how does it impact Rose's understanding of her ward's own first love? The author can offer nothing more profound than "in her experience, time and obstacles extinguish even the most stubborn fires of love . . . No one better than Miss Rose could know what was happening in Eliza's lovesick soul." That's it. Literally. Consider Henry Fielding's classic work about another foundling, Tom Jones, and one of its scenes of seduction: "Not to tire the reader, by leading him thro' every Scene of this Courtship, (which, tho', in the Opinion of a certain great Author, it is the pleasantest Scene of Life to the Actor, is, perhaps, as dull and tiresome as any whatever to the Audience) the Captain made his Advances in Form, the Citadel was defended in Form, and at length, in proper Form, surrendered at Discretion."

All the champagne showers and operatic arias, créme pastries and scented candles, the smarmy man in a silk robe and the virgin dressed like a Victoria's Secret model don't convey the same depth of meaning. We know the ways and charisma of Tom Jones, even as the narrative voice begs off telling us all the details (at least at that moment). There is more complexity of character in that one sentence of Fielding than in the dozen pages it took Allende to tell us about her character's sole experience with passion.

In an interview a number of years ago, Allende described North American literature as a "world devoid of illusion" that "denies aspects of the world we can't control." Certainly part of the storyteller's art is to demonstrate the power of language, and thus at times exorcise the demons of the past, of memory. But in this latest novel, Allende the author seems like the clumsy, boring architect Leonardo in her short story "Tosca," someone who "lacked the spirit to make a new beginning." It's a risky proposition to put value judgments on art--one person's masterpiece is someone else's object of scorn. But a work can be bad in a good way; that is, when its failure stems from the risk of innovation or experimentation or idea. Allende supposedly sets her characters off on journeys of discovery and change, but as an author, she settles on clichés and stale style. There's nothing wrong, though, with mediocre writing: at times it gives us pause to re-examine what is literature.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 1999 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 1999

IN MEMORY OF MY FEELINGS: Frank O'Hara and American Art

In Memory of My FeelingsEdited by Russell Ferguson
University of California Press ($39.95)

by Chris Fischbach

In Memory of My Feelings: Frank O'Hara and American Art is the book which accompanies the exhibit of the same name which ran at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles July 11th through November 14th, 1999, and which will also be shown at The Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio and The Parrish Art Museum in Southhampton, New York. I don't know if anyone in the visual arts would argue that this is a major twentieth century exhibition, though for O'Hara-philes, the exhibit is a must-see, which leads one to wonder why it isn't being shown in New York City. (The answer is, I suppose, that NYC is by now, especially given the recent Pollock retrospective, Abstract Expressionismed out.) Anyway Southhampton isn't really that far. For those of us who won't be able to see it, the book is sure to become an essential part of our own libraries.

Russell Ferguson, the curator and author of the extensive notes to the catalog, states that his aim was "to use the charismatic figure of Frank O'Hara as a lens through which to take another look at the most mythologized period in American Art. Despite much recent scholarship, the oversimplified narrative remains only too familiar: a heroic generation of Abstract Expressionist pioneers followed by a much weaker 'second generation,' and then by the explosion of Pop. In that version of history, there is little room for the strong tradition of realist and figurative painting that continued throughout the period. Nor does it easily accommodate idiosyncratic figures who cannot be easily pigeonholed, such as Joe Brainerd or Alfred Leslie."

I cannot argue, by virtue of my limited scholarship in visual art, that this goal was achieved. Certainly, however, the book is an invaluable tool in terms of the poetry, especially as a companion to Marjorie Perloff's Frank O'Hara: Poet Among Painters and, to a lesser degree, Standing Still and Walking in New York, a book of collected essays and interviews by and with O'Hara regarding both poetry and painting–both of which Ferguson has drawn significantly from for his understanding of O'Hara's poetry and the role painting had on it. Looming above all of these is of course the poetry itself, specifically (though not exclusively) "Oranges: 12 Pastorals," "Why I Am Not a Painter," "Second Avenue," and "In Memory of My Feelings." The great service the book provides to poetry is to gather many of the paintings and collaborations O'Hara fans have read about in the poetry and criticism, many of which are from private collections, and present them in a wonderfully designed and beautiful format. In many cases, it will come as a surprise to readers to find out that many of the poems existed first, or at least first publicly, as collaborations. In some cases, these collaborations are documented briefly in the notes to O'Hara's Collected Poems, but in many cases they aren't.

Even when they weren't the first appearances of the poems, their existence here in their collaborative incarnations is something both poem and not a poem. They are poetic instances, or circumstances, which bear an authenticity located somewhere between an original manuscript and a first edition. They are also both paintings and not paintings. From the point of view of either medium, there is always the sense of a certain equality of space. (Charles Olson helped pave the way for the idea of the page as an open field, a field similar to the canvas of the Abstract Expressionists and artists around the same period.) In Memory of My Feelings focuses on collaborations with Alfred Leslie, Larry Rivers, Grace Hartigan, Hans Namuth, Norman Bluhm, Michael Goldberg, and Joe Brainerd. In some instances, these are not true collaborations, in that a poem may have existed before its presence on the canvas; however, these instances represent a sovereign existence for each poem, independent of any prior or future life it may have. In Memory of My Feelings makes these available to readers for the first time in a single book, which is an exciting and important event.

I will have done an injustice to Ferguson if I continue to discuss what this all means for poetry; his argument is first and foremost from the point of view of the visual artists. The most compelling argument Ferguson makes has to do with the struggle many artists of this generation had with representation, specifically with the figure. With the arrival of Pollock, painting was supposed to have reached its Greenbergian peak: complete abstraction, the flattening of the canvas, the elimination of representation and narrative (which were supposed to be handed over to film and literature, which could do a better job of it anyway). This argument neatly shoves aside painters who continued to experiment with the figure (specifically Larry Rivers, Fairfield Porter, Grace Hartigan, and others) and it also ignores the idea that Jackson Pollock himself was the figure in his own paintings.

But poetry didn't necessarily want the job of representation either. To my mind, any poet in the last thirty or forty years that has been interesting at all has dealt, at least at some point, directly with the problems of representation– either wanting to represent but finding language inadequate; or wanting to free oneself from the tendency of language to represent things. In short, poetry's struggle with language is analogous to painting's struggle with the figure.

Nowhere is this more present in O'Hara's poetry than in "Why I Am Not a Painter," which Ferguson explicates very well and points to as a significant chronicle of the art scene in New York in the fifties– one of intense personal friendships between artists of all mediums, awareness of each other's current work, and how this closeness was both energizing and in a sense, collaborative. The poem also serves as perhaps the most coherent guide to O'Hara's own struggle with the tension between image and word, a tension he, living in both worlds simultaneously, surely felt. The very existence of the poem, with its (unusual for O'Hara) strict adherence to chronology, speaks to O'Hara's acceptance of his own medium, while recognizing, with a calm lament, its limitations.

Ferguson's reading of O'Hara and his struggle with representation is the very lens we can look through to understand the analogous struggle the painters were having. This lens can also help situate some of the artists that critics and historians have heretofore either ignored or subjugated as minor. Whether or not Joe Brainerd or Alfred Leslie become household names, we'll have to wait and see. But this book is a compelling look at the aesthetic issues such artists faced.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 1999 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 1999

A SHORT HISTORY OF RUDENESS: Manners, Morals, and Misbehavior in Modern America

A Short History of Rudeness by Mark CaldwellMark Caldwell
Picador USA ($18)

by Christopher Tinney

In his introduction to A Short History of Rudeness, the author asks us, "What are manners, anyway?" It seems a pertinent question in this era of road rage, Jerry Springer, and political correctness. Are manners inextricably tied to morality? Or are they simply learned gestures, automatic behaviors and phrases that once distinguished one class from another and are now often used as a way to conceal indifference or contempt? Mark Caldwell surveys a century of the increasingly boorish culture in America, where it seems as if freedom succeeds at the price of civility, and for every Emily Post or Martha Stewart, there are The Simpsons or South Park.

Though the demise of etiquette has in recent years become a national obsession, Caldwell demonstrates that this has been a consistently recurring phenomenon for several centuries; only now, with telecommunications and the internet, it has never been easier to "do unto your neighbor." In this fascinating history, Caldwell discusses the many aspects of proper behavior, from the usual rites of passage to the less clear issues of race and sexuality, touching on supposed sources of decay: mass media, increased mobility, and the changing shape of the American family.

Caldwell's study is divided into "Public Life" and "Private Life." His in-depth exploration of etiquette and power in the American workplace compels and alarms the reader, and he traces the recent trend in this country toward materialism as a substitute for ritual when it comes to weddings and funerals. Likewise, we are treated to Caldwell's estimation of the influence of Drs. Spock and Ruth as he examines child-rearing and the manners of sex in the '90s.

It is refreshing to find a scholar and critic who is willing and able to present both sides of the issues with the same clarity and wit. Unlike the droves of rabid pundits, Caldwell bypasses the wholesale trashing of American culture. "It is suspiciously easy," he says, "to polemicize an instance of bad behavior into an emblem of the decay of the times and a portent of apocalypse, and the pleasure of denouncing the antisocial excesses of one's age has been a conventional and rather stale reflex."

Though at times, the subject seems to get away from him, Caldwell certainly cannot be held accountable. Instead of trying to define and thereby limit an already elusive subject matter, he presents the reader with page after page of stimulating facts and ideas that weave casually back and forth across a common theme.

Caldwell's offering, in the end, is not just a cursory survey of etiquette, but a broader perspective on the social texture in America--one that entertains and at times disturbs. Far from closing the book on manners, Rudeness opens us up to the very middle and leaves us with endless musings as we approach a new millennium.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 1999 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 1999

A DESIRED PAST: A Short History of Same-Sex Love in America

A Desired Past by Leila J. RuppLeila J. Rupp
University of Chicago Press ($22)

by Brad Jacobsen

A storyteller exists inside everyone. Stories are shared on a daily basis without much thought as to the consequences, if any, of sharing these tales. But what if there is fallout from telling a little too much, of speaking the socially unspeakable? What happens when the personal histories of an entire facet of society are not only discounted, but outright ignored and silenced? In the past decade, many books dealing with the undiscovered histories of lesbians and gay men have been published to rectify what some may consider to have been a conspiracy of silence. Leila J. Rupp's A Desired Past: A Short History of Same-Sex Love in America is the newest addition to the ever-expanding genre of queer history.

Rupp owes a lot to well-known queer historians such as Chauncey, D. D'Emilio, Duberman, and Faderman and even goes so far as to acknowledge her debt to their previous work. However, in this effort she is not attempting to present a definitive text on the experience of being gay or lesbian in America. What she is hoping to achieve is a book that allows those people who could not speak of their passions in their lifetimes to share them in the present. This may explain why she is keen to point out this will be a "short history," for, as Rupp herself explains, "What is rare is the voice of a person speaking directly about her or his same-sex love, desire, or sexual acts. Such documents for the past require . . . courage to leave a written record of what societies viewed as a crime, sin or illness." Rupp is the conduit for the little stories which, when added together, make a many-hued portrait of same-sex love in America during this nation's lifetime.

The reader of A Desired Past will be treated to a broad history, populated by such citizens as the gender-bending Native American berdache; fairies from the 1920s; 19th-century romantic friends M. Carey Thomas and Mamie Gwinn; Nicholas Sension, the 17th-century Connecticut man who pursued his servant boys; Jeanne Bonnet, the cross-dressing San Francisco gang leader who was murdered in 1876; 1950s butches and femmes; and queer foot soldiers from the Stonewall Riots of 1969. Rupp is not presenting anything that has not been offered before. What differs is the manner in which she offers it. It is refreshing, and even empowering, to read how a great-great uncle once passionately wrote to his close friend, "I feel some inclination to learn whether you yet sleep in your Shirt-tail . . . and whether you have the extravagant delight of poking and punching a writhing Bedfellow with your long fleshen pole," or how a twice-removed great-great aunt once morosely pined, "Oh Mamie, if you only knew how my heart beats when I think of you and it yearns and pants to gaze, if only for one second upon your lovely face." These stories are what make Rupp's work singular. Her book may not be exhaustive, but it represents something far more rare in the genre of history: it is personal.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 1999 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 1999

DEFINING THE SACRED: Hubert Selby, Jr. on Spirituality, the Creative Will, & Love

Interview by Robert Couteau

Robert Couteau: You've just returned from Europe, where you gave a series of readings in Germany and attended the Paris premiere of the documentary, A Couple of Things About Hubert Selby. Would you care to relate some of the highlights of your recent trip?

Hubert Selby: I don't know if there were any highlights, to tell you the truth. It was all very exciting. I enjoyed all of it. And after the people down in the breakfast room at the hotel saw me on television, I got extra croissants in the morning. So that was kind of nice. The people were all so wonderful, the reception was so enthusiastic, that I can't think of anything that stands out more than anything else. Other than some of the scenery. Berlin was incredible, there are forests and lakes all over that city, it was just amazing.

RC: That was not your first time in Berlin?

HS: No, I've been in Berlin before, but it's always been a quickie, in and out, kind of.

RC: What about reading in Europe? Is the reception that you get there any different from the States—when you read in the Moon Dog Cafe, let's say, compared to Berlin?

HS: Well, the people in Germany are very, very responsive to the readings.

RC: In the film you were asked about your belief in God, and you said that it all depends upon one's definition of God; that you didn't believe in most of the conventional definitions, the way that most people define God. Now, my question is, do you have any spiritual beliefs? I'm not going to ask "do you believe in God"; that's not really how I would phrase it. But do you have any specific spiritual beliefs, and if so, what is your definition of the sacred?

HS: I don't know if I can define it. I certainly do attempt to live according to spiritual principles. That's always the foundation of each and every day. But to define . . . I don't think you can. I think anything that I can define is not it. It has to be beyond my ability to define or understand. But I have experienced some things in my life that just force me to believe in some sort of power. A creative . . . creative power source; however you want to phrase it. I certainly have experienced that presence. And I have experienced what I consider the basic . . . oh, so hard to use words to describe an ultra-dimensional thing . . . but what we would call love and concern.

RC: But do you feel that this thing that we find is so difficult to give a name, like, as Lao Tzu says, "The Tao that can be named is not the true Tao" . . .

HS: [Laughs] That's right—". . . is not the Tao"—that's right!

RC: That's what I was thinking of when you said that just now. I'm very, very curious to get in your own words, without putting words in your mouth. This thing that we find so hard to define, is it something that just exists on a human level or on a profane level, or is it something that, for lack of a better word, we could call extra-mundane or spiritual? Do you believe in anything like that?

HS: Oh, yeah, absolutely. I believe in something that is beyond this body. And beyond this physical world. Absolutely.

RC: That's always been the sense that I get from your writing. When he was close to death, Henry Miller said that he did not believe in God in the first-person singular, not as an "I," but that he did believe in creation, which is very close, very similar to what you just said.

HS: Yeah, I would say "it" rather than "I." [Laughs]

RC: I think he meant, as you said in the film, that God for many people was a sort of anthropomorphic creation; Miller was saying that he didn't believe in a singular being but more of an "it" as you just said . . . I noticed in a previous print interview that you said you felt you were—I'm paraphrasing now—merely an "agent" of the creative. Where then does it come from, and how is the artist's spiritual role different from the role that other people play?

HS: Well, what do you mean where does "it" come from? What is "it"? Do you mean where does this ultimate creative force come from?

RC: No, I'm asking about the role of a writer—because I think you were talking about being a writer—and if, when you write there's something coming from beyond us.

HS: Oh right. Well, beyond? I wouldn't say beyond. I would say absolutely within. But I couldn't limit the depth of "within." Because once you start getting within, you are in such a boundless, infinite universe. But it's important for me to say within, because I don't think there's anything outside of me.

RC: Are you a part of that big "it" with a capital I, then?

HS: I think we all are, yes. Absolutely. See, which is interesting because, obviously every second of every day people are being born, people are dying, which means whatever this "it" is, changes. It's in constant change, constant flux. Yet, I want to keep it still. [Laughs] And I think that's the source of so many of my problems, and I guess you could say the world's problems, is we're trying to control it, instead of just surrendering to it.

RC: You've said that "Sometimes we have the absolute certainty that there's something inside us that's so hideous and monstrous that if we ever search it out we won't be able to stand looking at it. But it's when we're willing to come face to face with that demon that we face the angel." Do you believe in angels?

HS: Well, I'm just using, you know, the vernacular here, demons, angels, but yeah, I do believe . . . See, again, angels is a tough word, because it is so involved with organized religion and everything else. But let me just say this. I do know, absolutely, from my experience, there are some kind of spiritual entities—force, power, intelligence—that guide me through each and every day, as long as I'm willing to accept, recognize, and surrender to their guidance. It's always there, but there are times when I insist upon having my way.

RC: That's wonderful that you say that; I think that that really gets very close to what I was trying to understand, which is that you do feel that there are extra-human powers or forces that move through us. Is that correct?

HS: Yeah. But I suppose you could get right down to it and say, well, maybe they're not even extra-human, maybe they're ultra-human; who knows? But there are definitely things that aren't necessarily walking around in a body like mine. And I believe they're sort of everywhere. I mean, I can't . . . where can you look where you're not looking in the direction of God, so to speak? Where do I go where I'm not surrounded by air and all these little molecules and atoms and all that kind of stuff that's there. It's just there.

RC: That might be a perfect segue into a question that I was going to ask you further down the line. Because it makes me think of "Psalm 16," what you just said. You know, your piece "Psalm 16"?

HS: Oh . . . oh, mine. Yeah, okay—I was thinking of David's [Laughs]—I couldn't remember 16!

RC: [Laughs] Okay, my question was: Are good and evil two sides of the same face of God? I'm remembering the place in your stunning piece "Psalm 16" in which you excoriate God and all that occurs "in your name, in your fucking myriad of names"—by the way, that was such a beautiful line! And, on the other hand, you sing, at the end of that song: "I said to the almond tree, 'Speak to me of God'. And the almond tree blossomed."

HS: Precisely. Precisely. One of the things I like about—whew, I get chills thinking about it—one of the things that I like about that Psalm is that it appears that the narrator doesn't know what he's doing, or what he's saying. He doesn't realize that he's defeating his own argument, so to speak. That's one of the things I like about it. See the thing is, about the face of God, again—that really personalizes it doesn't it, when we say, "the face of God"? And then that gets us back to that Henry Miller thing and so forth, from the beginning. So I don't think that they're both two different faces of God. I think what it is, is: good and evil is simply my perception of something at the moment.

RC: Do you believe in evil as an independent, an autonomous force that acts within us or against us, or is evil as the Church sometimes has defined it "merely the absence of good?"

HS: Well, I just don't seem to be capable of believing in evil as some separate, distinct power within itself. I guess I'm just not a Southern Baptist or a Fundamentalist. [Laughs] I just don't seem to be capable of believing in it myself, somehow. I don't . . . I can't conceive from my experience how this force of evil can exist without the force of love being right there.

RC: Right. That's a big part of what I wanted this interview to be about and what I wanted to ask you about. Because when I read through your books there is omnipresent the term and the image and the notion of the demon . . .

HS: That's right.

RC: And in this world of duality, the question naturally would be: What's the counterpoint of the demon? Which is why I asked about the angels.

HS: Well actually, the counterpoint is love. As I understand it, there are only two emotions a human being can experience—love or fear. And when you're in a state of love, you can't think of trying to get anything. You're incapable of thinking that way. You just seem to experience the perfection of creation, and want to do what you can to make everyone comfortable, you just give away everything you have. When I talk about giving away I'm not talking about my clothes or my house–but from within me. You know, try to comfort people. So if I'm coming from anyplace else I'm coming from fear, and fear takes many, many, many forms to be effective. All kinds of forms. So, if I'm facing the demon of fear, love is always available, but what I have to do is be willing to surrender to it. Surrender my ideas of what is right, what is wrong, and all those dreadful judgments that keep us in turmoil and ignorance and misery.

RC: Are the demons then merely what Jung would call autonomous complexes? Are they things that are just below our consciousness that are just pulling us in the wrong direction, that have been formed by past experiences?

HS: I really couldn't say. I don't know if it's formed by past experiences. I mean because then if you say past experiences, now we're getting into reincarnation, because . . .

RC: Well, I actually meant in this lifetime.

HS: Well no, I don't think so, it seems to be something else. I mean, then how would you explain Mozart?

RC: I think Mozart, like you, is an example of someone who has the gods moving through him, and his religion was creation.

HS: Yeah, and at three years old he's writing music! [Laughs] So I don't know. How about the accident of birth? Maybe you're born with an obsession, or that aspect of obsession that just has to be generated, somehow, through life. I just don't know.

RC: So you do feel that it's possible that, as I think the original definition of the word means—destiny—that it's "that which follows from before"—you do believe that we may be born into this world not coming in with a blank slate, so to speak?

HS: Right; I do believe that. And I don't believe in a blank slate in any way. I mean, that's what we seem to be taught, at least in the Western world: we're born with a blank slate, and we have to learn how to get, and get. Otherwise we're fucked. [Laughs] That seems to be the message, you know. Certainly in this country. But no one ever seems to train us in methods of finding out that we already have within us all the things that are valuable, all the treasures. But it's only in the process of giving them away to somebody else that we become aware of having them. Now . . . and I don't know, I just don't know about where these things, where do my obsessions come from? My earliest memory as a little kid, I have these obsessions. I have no idea. I'm grateful I found out how I can become increasingly free of them. But I don't know. And I don't know anything really about karma, reincarnation. So I can't explain the origin.

RC: Do you believe that love is something that existed before human beings? Or the possibility for it existed before we came down the block?

HS: Well, yeah, I think so, but I don't know that I could really define it. I can't . . . again, it's like trying to define what this creative force is. It's beyond my ability to really define. If I can define it, then it's not it. We're right back to that thing again.

RC: We're back to Lao Tzu.

HS: Yeah, right back there again. So I don't know. But I do believe this: That what we call love is always available to us. And of course I'm not just talking about passion. I'm talking about love where you just can't conceive that your life isn't perfect, that you can't conceive of wanting anything.

RC: Do you mean love that could exist without another person?

HS: Yes, oh yes. In one sense, in an experiential sense. But, if love is what I've experienced, I can't separate it from other people. I can't separate creation, and I can't separate whatever this creative thing is, from it's creation. I don't believe that can be done. So as I said before, we're all part of this creative force. So, where else am I going to be directing my love? Now, I can sit alone and experience this thing and be overwhelmed with such ecstasy that I can't say anything but "thank you," but ultimately, I direct it towards people. Hopefully.

RC: And is it directed into your work?

HS: Well, yeah . . . but of course then again we get down to a definition . . . it may be hard to find the love in my work sometimes! [Laughs] We'll put it that way! According to the way people define love.

RC: Is the act of you sitting down, with all your physical pain, and all the things you've been through, and all the difficulties that every writer encounters in writing a book, isn't it really motivated by love?

HS: Yeah. And that love is beyond what we call love. That's something [Laughs]—it's probably beyond what any writer calls love, too!

RC: It's not romantic love we're talking about, we're talking about a mystical rapture.

HS: Yeah, we're talking about rapture, we're talking about creation. We're also talking about extraordinary pain.

RC: Which brings us back maybe to what we were talking about before, what I called, for lack of a better metaphor, the two sides of the face of the absolute, let's say. There was a very interesting German philosopher who wrote about comparative religion; his name was Rudolf Otto. He wrote a book calledThe Idea of the Holy. He invented two terms. He said that the encounter with the absolute is a mysterium fascinans, or it can be a mysterium tremendum. It can be bliss or it can be terror. Or it can be both. Is it difficult as a spiritual person to reconcile that pain that you were just speaking about; that that's part of this creation, too; that there are, besides, the demons; that that's all part of the same portrait?

HS: Oh yeah, it's difficult. At least for me. Sometimes I sit here and the phone rings and I cry. I can't talk! I'm just totally incapable of it. But I've come to believe, from my experience, that whenever I feel like I'm locked in hell, I am at the gates of heaven. And my perception of my experience can change in the wink of an eye. Just all of a sudden. Boom.

RC: You're at the gates of heaven because that can be the next step, or . . . ?

HS: Well, let me put it this way. I think we're always striving for this perfection of our own being; to realize our own perfection. To realize and be consciously at one with this thing that created us, that we always have within us. I mean we always have it in its entirety. It's my belief that says "I don't." And it seems to me that, periodically, the closer I get to the conscious awareness of my oneness with this creative power, the more insane the human ego becomes. And I'm defining "ego" as the lie of separation. The lie that says I'm separate from this thing that I can never be separate from. I'm separate from me; I'm separate from you. It starts to feel really threatened, and it just becomes outrageously vicious—at its best [Laughs] it's vicious. And so I can just feel so twisted and turned, that I can't move; I just don't know what the hell is going on. But my experience has proven to me that when I'm feeling that way, it's because I'm really knocking at the gates of heaven. You know, to use a phrase. And if I can just find some way of letting go of my fear, which usually means surrendering right into the middle of the fear—in other words, just sitting and saying, okay, you fucking dragons, you demons, here I am, eat me up alive, you fucking punk. Then, I become aware of being at the gates of heaven. But boy, it's not easy. [Laughs]

RC: I recently re-read Last Exit to Brooklyn while simultaneously reading your last book, The Willow Tree. Most critics remember your first book for its portrayal of absolute brutality and cruelty—and maybe we can say in this context, separation, right?

HS: Mm-hmm.

RC: . . . while the last book is in part highlighted by the attempt of various characters to show empathy, passion, and love. Yet a careful reading reveals that, in fact, there are episodes, incidents and moments in Last Exit in which empathy occurs and is portrayed in a beautiful and touching manner.

HS: I think so, you know? [Laughs] I'm glad to hear that you do!

RC: I'm also thinking of the story, "And Baby Makes Three," which is at least in part about, "having a ball," as one character says. More specifically, in "The Queen is Dead," there are very moving passages that portray Georgette's love for Vinnie. And in fact I was surprised to discover that three essential symbols make their appearance in this chapter: the swan, the lake, and the willows. These symbols of rapture and bliss also make their appearance years later, in your last book, The Willow Tree; specifically, the part where Moishe takes Bobby to Prospect Park and Bobby experiences what may be his first day of pure bliss and rapture. So my question is, are things like bliss, happiness, ecstasy, and even rapture among the most difficult themes or portrayals to handle successfully, as a writer.

HS: I think so. Because for one thing, like you said, this is a world of duality, so we need something to compare it with. So I have to set the situation up where we can experience the difference between, whatever—everyday life—we are having and this experience of bliss. And if you remember, when you said about Bobby, his first experience of bliss being under The Willow Tree with Moishe, but remember later on Bobby tries to remember some time in his life that made a difference? He remembers when he was a little kid, and they opened up the hydrant on a summer day. And he had that moment then. You see what I mean? It's a very relative thing. But he had a brief time there where, oh, life was just enchantment. "Even the old cranky folks," or something, "the old sour pusses, were okay"? [Quoting from memory, from the passage]

RC: But in general, as a writer, why is that—why is happiness not only so much more difficult to portray as a writer, but also, to make the critics happy about how you portray it?

HS: Well, I don't know how to make the critics happy! [Laughs] I mean this book, The Willow Tree, I can't even get criticism in this country, that's been totally ignored. So, anyway . . .

RC: Maybe it's just a general human reaction. I remember once reading something that Norman Mailer said—that people get uncomfortable when you talk about being in love. You know? People get uncomfortable when they hear a description of pure happiness, and they tend to look at it as being silly.

HS: Well, because quite often if you're talking about being in love, you probably sound very silly because for one thing, you are totally self-centered at that time, aren't you? When we're talking about romantic love and so on; that must be what he's referring to. Now to talk about the subject of love in some undefined sense, that can be fascinating, but we don't get into that. We're talking about a very subjective, first-person sort of thing. And yeah, [Laughs] that can be a bore! Because of the way we talk about it. But if we can present a life, with the tragedies and the horrors of life, and then, see the absence of these horrors . . . You see, I discovered something many years ago: that I spent so many years trying to get happy, that I finally realized that I can't get happy; that happiness is a natural state of being. When I stop doing the things that make me unhappy, I will experience the happiness that is that natural state of being. See, I don't think we were created with some pain and misery and whatever. I think we were created by whatever this thing is, when it extended itself, and, here we are. But I pile on so many misconceptions that I end up uncomfortable in my own skin.

RC: That's similar to that other definition that I mentioned before, if we turn it around and speak of good as "the absence of evil."

HS: In a very real sense, yes. But the problem with that definition is that the way it's phrased, "good is the absence of evil"—as if it's not something absolute within itself. Now, I don't use the words "good" or "bad" . . . But of course, in our experience, in the human condition, we do need both, it is a world of duality. So I don't know from up without down, or left without right.

RC: Well, since we're in this metaphysical dilemma right now . . .

HS: [Laughs] And have been for many moons, I guess!

RC: Right! This might be a good moment to ask you, what's our purpose then? I mean, in the really big sense of the question; and what's your purpose at this juncture, as a writer? When you wake up in the morning and you're thinking about the book that you're working on, what's the ultimate goal there?

HS: When I'm thinking about the book I'm working on, the ultimate goal is always, of course, just simply to write the best book I can write and to understand the book that's been given to me to write. So that I can create it appropriately. Now, I don't know about the meaning of life. [Laughs] There is no definition of it; it can only be experienced. But I do believe—and I think Moishe says this—we all need a meaning to our life. I have to have a meaning in my life. If I roam around without some meaning in my life, I'm in deep and serious trouble. I can't, I just can't exist.

RC: The French have that wonderful expression, raison d'etre, reason to be. So if you had to define your raison d'etre, what would you say, in a sentence?

HS: To be as kind, gentle, loving as possible.

RC: What's wonderful about all the things you're saying is that I think you have this very well articulated and well thought-out—well thought-out because it's coming from experience—metaphysic, but you really bring it down to earth, and you continually return to those basic . . . I could say moral qualities . . . kindness, love, forgiveness. Would you define yourself in part as a moralist, as a writer or as a person? Or is that just too small a word?

HS: You know, I never thought of it in those terms. But I guess I'd have to, to some degree, because I am concerned with what the moral dynamic might be of any story that's given to me to write. Not only the psychodynamic but what the moral dynamic is, is important. I mean, the first time somebody asked me to describe Last Exit, I heard myself say: "The horrors of a loveless world." That's many moons ago that I was asked that question, and I hadn't thought about it ahead of time, but that's what came out of my mouth, and I can't find any reason to change my mind about that statement.

RC: I noticed that in The Willow Tree there are many times when the phrase "the demons" makes its appearance; and of course there's your wonderful book by the same title; and while re-reading Last Exit, I also noticed the first appearance in your writing of this word, the demon. It's when Georgette spontaneously decides to read Edgar Allan Poe's poem, "The Raven." And she recites: "And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon's that is dreaming." Now, when I met you in Paris, I was surprised to see that you were always smiling, and laughing, and that your eyes did not have the seeming of a demon.

HS: [Laughs] Well, thank you!

RC: And when I read that line, I thought: Yeah, maybe Selby is the demon that is dreaming, and what he dreams up is this collection of what I think is some of the best prose in American literature; or, one could say that the demon is another force that you've been selected for some reason to be the agent for, to use your word from before. If you are the agent, what is the price that you pay, in carrying the demon within you, and giving it a voice?

HS: Ohhhhh, boy. The price! Whewwww. You know, first of all, you can't say with absolute certainty. However, I can say [Laughs] that my life to a great extent has been a horror story. Whewwww. In a way, I don't pay a price, but I'm given something. I have these experiences in my life. I've had a lot of problems. Certainly a lot of physical problems, as well as emotional problems and everything else. Now, when I finally accept the fact that I'm a writer, and go through the arduous task [Laughs] of developing that ability . . . See, you must remember that I have no natural talents or abilities in any area of life. I'm not a natural writer; or a natural reader; I'm not an exceptional mechanic; I'm not an exceptional athlete; I'm not a draftsman at all, I can't draw or . . . Absolutely no natural talent. But I had an obsession to do something with my life before I died. And I just sat in front of that typewriter everyday for six years until I learned how to write. Now, I can't say that the ability wasn't there, obviously. I guess it was there and I just had to fight like hell to activate it, to animate it, to nurture it, to love it. So I don't know about that; I just know that it was a lot of work. Now, because I have this life of suffering, with demons and all other forms of misery, now at least I can do something with it. So it becomes for me, I have to assume it becomes cathartic, in a sense. But at the same time, I have a certain framework. Now this is something else that kept me in conflict and created great pain, is that, philosophically and consciously, ethically, morally, whatever, I'm a very pacifistic person. I don't believe in violence, yet my life has been so violent that I'm constantly—at least in the past—violating my own code of ethics and morality. And that is just destroying me. So, although I'm not consciously aware of this—I'm just looking back; I'm not aware of it at the time—I can constantly experience the difference between heaven and hell, so to speak. And the terrible pain of these conflicts, and the angst of not doing the loving things that I always wanted to do. And doing all the mean-spirited things I knew that no human being should ever do. So in the end result when I . . . I'm not focusing on any of these things, I'm focusing on writing the best story I can write. Which means I'm doing everything I can to give the artist within me as much power as possible. Then, somehow on this piece of paper emerges the results of that conflict, in such a way that the reader can experience and see what it's really like to live this life, instead of sitting comfortably somewhere and saying, "Oh, those people, they should all be shot."

RC: With your creative obsession with demonology, with God, and with man's suffering and the possibility of redemption or catharsis or even transcendence, which you've lately explored in The Willow Tree, aren't you in fact a religious writer?

HS: It depends again on how we define the word religious. Certainly not in the organized sense, but in some very, very broad spiritual sense, I guess I'd have to agree with you. Again, this wasn't my conscious effort in writing. But it seems to me I am. And I should amend my previous statement by saying, in The Willow Tree, it was a conscious effort to write a spiritual book.

RC: Could you elaborate a bit on that?

HS: Well, as simply as possible, I had spent many years writing about the darkness. And I wrote about the darkness from many different points of view, as I felt like it. And now I wanted . . . See, I'm always presenting myself with problems to solve as a writer. So the problem I presented myself with was to not only write about the darkness but to write about the light. And how you get from the darkness to the light. So I would think that that's kind of defining a spiritual book.

RC: Coming from Brooklyn myself, I'm always amazed at how much you've captured of that nearly-impossible-to-describe place. If you had not been raised in Bay Ridge but instead hailed from a small town with white picket fences and year-round sunshine, and strangers who greeted everyone on main street by saying, "Good morning"—in other words, if the peculiar spirit of those dark Brooklyn streets had not infused itself into your soul, what do you think would have been the result? I mean, in terms of your writing.

HS: Maybe I never would have written. That's quite possible, you know? Because one of the things that fascinates me is the music of speech. And I don't know . . . how many places are there in the world where you have the music of speech? Certainly not in most of this country. So I just don't know. I'm not sure what. . . And if I had the same kind of personality that I have, living in a small town, I don't know if I would have survived long enough to try to write.

RC: One of the strange things about a lot of those parts of Brooklyn is they don't seem to change, decade after decade.

HS: Oh, that's right. Yeah, Bay Ridge, I think, is the same for the last eighty years. With a few physical exceptions.

RC: In many ways it's a wonderful place, but in other ways it is a very violent place. For some reason, there are a lot of very violent people that come out of those streets.People who don't really have a sense of what you were calling catharsis before.

HS: But isn't it funny that all these mass murderers and kids and grown-ups who go around whacking people, don't come from . . .

RC: They come from the little towns with the white picket fences!

HS: That's right! [Laughs] Yeah, they don't come from Brooklyn, so I might have been one of those! Given the nature of my personality. Who the heck knows! I don't know, man. I don't know. But I know that I Iove the city; I love the sound of the city.

RC: I guess the other side of my question really was, how much of Last Exit and maybe things that followed, even up through and including The Willow Tree, how much of that is really a portrait of such streets? All your books are very universal, but if someone like me has actually come from a place like that, we're hit with a double whammy. Because it's a universal tale but it really mirrors and captures the uniqueness of that place. Has that been something you've thought about through your life?

HS: Well, not in the physical sense of portraying Brooklyn in any way. But in a very real sense I have thought about it. Because what I attempt to do is put the reader through an emotional experience. So you don't find much physical description in my work. I don't describe the streets too much or anything else. But I try and get as deeply inside the people who live on those streets as possible. And I think that's what you're experiencing, what it's like to live on those streets. And you're getting each individual's reaction to their life on those streets. Maybe that's what it is. I certainly can't really say.

RC: I know that you feel a spiritual or literary kinship with Céline.

HS: Yeah.

RC: There's another great writer who also emerged from Brooklyn who also had a great kinship with Céline; that is, Henry Miller. Did Miller in any way influence you or did you feel a kinship with him as a man or as a writer?

HS: No . . . I don't know how much of Miller I ever read before I started writing.

RC: Probably wasn't much available at that time.

HS: No, there wasn't. Because I started writing in the mid-'50s. So . . . No, I don't think . . . even if I had read it, I don't think Miller would have influenced me in any way. Because we seem to approach things so differently.

RC: How so?

HS: Well in a lot of .. well, I don't know about "a lot"—I haven't read that much.

RC: Oh really? For some reason, I thought he might have been someone that you've read a lot. Because I saw somewhere that you had his books on your bookshelf or something.

HS: Yeah, I do have a couple of his books here. But see, I always have a very definitive story-line. I'm like an old fashioned writer: a beginning, middle and end, kind of thing. And quite often, he doesn't. He just kind of wanders around in the streets of Paris, so to speak, and then he wanders around in his mind, you know? Just kind of strolling, straying. Which is cool; I'm not making a negative critique of this. But I think we approach things quite differently sometimes. Although that one book, I forget which Tropic it is, the one that takes place in Brooklyn when he's at Western Union, that had a pretty kind of direct story-line, and was kind of linear, and there were some parts that had me laughing out loud. The thing with his first babysitter and all that kind of stuff man, you know? [Laughs] And the same thing with Céline—I don't think I was influenced by him, but just on looking back on it, at least on the surface, it looks like I have more to do with him than anybody else. You know, in that raging, maniacal kind of sense.

RC: By the way, did you know that . . . I don't think it's in print anywhere, but apparently Celine did use mescaline. I was speaking to a biographer who had some contact with Allen Ginsberg, who had met Celine, and according to Ginsberg, Celine had used mescaline. And I've always wondered about the influence of mescaline on Celine's books. Because there are some passages that are very, very hallucinatory in his work.

HS: So in other words, he used it on a regular basis for a while? Not just an experimental thing?

RC: I really don't know; I think there's very little known about it. I've read most of the biographies that are available on him; I've never seen it in print. But I know that he did use it at least once and that he had access to it as a doctor. Have you ever used hallucinogenics?

HS: No. Well, I smoked grass, which is basically a hallucinogenic. But no, I never wanted to go near them.

RC: Did using drugs have any kind of positive influence on your writing? Or to put it in another way, were you able to take anything out of that experience and portray it or use it as material?

HS: Well, yeah, Requiem for a Dream, obviously.

RC: How about how it might have effected you as a stylist? Or your use of language?

HS: I don't think so. I didn't get involved with drugs until after Last Exit was published. And I think that language and style and so forth was pretty well established there.

RC: Carl Jung used to say that it took as much as twenty years for the collective consciousness to catch up with the contents published in his books. How much time will pass before the public is able to get—in other words, to understand—books like The Room and Requiem for a Dream?

HS: Well, now that's a good question; that's a very good question. The public doesn't seem to have such a problem with my books. It's the academics that do! [Laughs]

RC: And the critics? Is that what you mean when you say academics?

HS: Well, some critics have been very kind, very wonderful.

RC: You received some great reviews for those books.

HS: Yeah! The Room got some . . . Josephine Hendin, and Dotson Rader! I mean, wow, I got incredible reviews. But nobody seems to know it exists. So, it's not so much the public. I find that when the public gets around to reading it, from the feedback I get from them, they seem to relate to the book and enjoy it and so forth. But I've been kind of ostracized I think by the academic community. As a matter of fact, I was told that after Last Exit was published, I was told by someone that there really was a conspiracy against the book, in that the large bookstores in New York would not display the book. They would sell it, but they wouldn't display it.

RC: Last Exit was banned in the U.K., but not in the States. Why was Last Exit allowed to be published in the United States in 1964 and Tropic of Cancer, which was a much less obscene book, by the classical definition, why was that book banned; and why did it have to go through a trial of over a year? And it was three years later—it was 1966 or 1967—until it was allowed to be published, when the trail was over?

HS: I don't know, but what popped in mind is the fact that his work had been banned here for many years. You could only smuggle it in and all that sort of stuff. So it had a different resistance and a different procedure to go through.

RC: It already had an established weight, a history that it had to deal with.

HS: Right. Yeah. And of course Barney Rossett took care of business and made it possible for a lot of things to happen.

RC: You were just talking about the fact that there was a conscious . . . well, we could say, conspiracy, to create obstacles for Last Exit. Did the FBI ever open a file on you and, if so, have you ever seen it or requested it?

HS: No, somebody once told me that they have a file on me, but. . .

RC: Never seen it?

HS: No . . . I don't even think about it. I mean what the hell could . . .

RC: Might be good for some laughs, no?

HS: Yeah! [Laughs] I think it would piss me off to think that all the time and money they're wasting, getting a file on me, for Christ's sake! Maybe we should do something more important with all this stuff!

RC: It pisses me off that people like Frank Sinatra get the Presidential Medal of Honor or whatever it's called . . . and not people like you!

HS: [Laughs] You know, fuck the medal—I could use some money! [Laughs] And don't forget, sixteen years ago, I was on welfare for Christ's sake, with my son. We were on welfare for a year.

RC: Well, this is also coming off the top of my head, but anything to say about how America treats its artists—or maybe not just America, but governments in the world in general? I mean, you must still have some bitterness about that, no?

HS: No, not bitterness, I just . . . I get sad sometimes. I was certainly sad at the time, when, you know, you have to scrounge for money to support your family. And I never could really earn a living because of my physical condition, lack of education, and so forth. The only government that I really know is this government; we don't have a cultural affairs department or anything, like they have in some of the European countries. Now, whether that's any better or not, I don't know! I'm sure there are plenty of artists who really oppose all that bureaucracy dealing with the arts. But it would be nice, if somehow, you could get some money. You know, I've applied for the NEA a couple of times, the Guggenheims, and things like that. And I've always been turned down by everybody. And according to them, there's at least 2,000 writers in this country who are better than I am. Which could very well be true. And I would love to read them . . .

RC: You know Henry Miller was also turned down for a Guggenheim.

HS: Well, I can understand that, because he was a dirty writer! [Laughs] You know, in those days? To write the way he was writing?

RC: When Picasso was living in Paris, he was approached by a group of artists, and they asked him to sign a petition so that the government would give more money to artists. And he absolutely refused to sign it. He said, of course I'm not going to sign that petition. The state, the government, is the enemy.

HS: Well, but we must remember that he was a Communist, so his attitude was a little different. But that's why I say I'm not sure if it's beneficial to have an official government bureau. And who's going to head it? Jessie Helms? [Laughs uproariously] Dan Quayle, that's who! [Laughs] Yeah. So I don't know about governments, as far as individual artists are concerned. I suspect it wouldn't be worth it to have them poking around. I think it would be nice if governments could be a little more helpful with, say, orchestras, ballet companies, and so forth, that can't sustain themselves. Maybe they could get a tax break on tickets or something. There might be some way of doing it where they could keep them out of it. But the individual artists, I think we just have to go our own way.

RC: I agree with you. I think in a way the great irony or paradox about America is that it makes it so hard for the sensitive person, the artist, the impressionable person, the person whose raison d'etre is to incarnate the creative will, rather than to just make money, and yet that extreme difficulty that the culture poses for us has created some of the best artists in the last hundred years.

HS: Correct. I mean, how is a pearl manufactured? That seems to be a necessary part. Because the artist by definition is outside of the mainstream of society. Wasn't it Yeats who said the artist is the antenna of the race? It's so true. It seems to me that what the artist sees is the simple and obvious that is invisible to everybody else. And it's always there; it's all around us. And the artist magnifies what's invisible to other people; so that they're capable of at least realizing there's something here.

RC: What is the artist's special relationship to the childhood experience? Were you, for example, the classical artist as a child; the very sensitive, impressionable person?

HS: Oh God, yeah! Oh, Jesus! [Laughs] And not only that—my name is Hubert, and I'm born and raised in Brooklyn! Everybody's Mikey, Vinnie, Tony—it was like being a Jew in an Irish neighborhood! [Laughs] I mean, everybody's poking fun at me. And I could never, never deal with it. I could never deal with it. Oh, God almighty. Everybody else seems to be taking care of business, and I'm in this constant turmoil. I see a cat going through a garbage can getting something to eat—I fall apart; I'm crying, I'm dying! I can't stand to look at it, you know? Oh, man . . . You know, bringing home crippled birds, you know, that kind of thing.

RC: Was there a person, was there an adult who was any kind of a role model, or was there a singular defining experience in your childhood that marked you to be an artist later on, do you think?

HS: No; I think it's just something there, it's again that accident of birth that I don't understand. I think it can get nurtured. You see, you don't decide to be an artist, you accept the fact that you are, but you don't decide to be one. Now who the hell could be that dumb? Can you imagine deciding to live this kind of life? Oh, good Lord! [Laughs]

RC: I don't know if you've ever seen Mircea Eliade's book on shamanism, but he says in that book that when the old shaman, or when the tribe decides to select the young boy who will become the next shaman, it's like a fate worse than death, and the boy tries to run away and to escape, and it's the worst thing imaginable, because he will be wounded—in a psychological sense—in some way, and it's through that wound that the unconscious will come, that the sacred world will come, through that wound, through that hole inside of him.

HS: Boy, does that sound accurate. Wow.

RC: By the way, what was your parents' nationality? Are you Irish?

HS: No, English. Hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of years; all English.

My family on both sides have been in this country more than 350 years.

RC: So they were the last English family left in Bay Ridge probably, right?

HS: I was a member of the smallest minority in the country, for God's sake! [Laughs] I want minority rights, God bless us! [Laughs]

RC: You're working on an autobiography now?

HS: No, not really. I was writing a memoir. I wanted to put down as much information about myself as possible for my children. Because I realized that, who the heck can know their parents? Even if you have a whole bunch of facts. And I know nothing about my father, not even the facts or anything else. But who can really know them, when you're a kid, they're God, they're all this, they're that. And I just thought it would be nice to leave a document for my children, where they can just see the humanness inside of their father. It's not finished, because I've got so many other things happening. Suddenly I was writing The Willow Tree, and now something else. And also, I was writing a thing called "Seeds of Pain, Seeds of Love"; that is very autobiographical. I don't know if I'll ever get back and organize that and finish it. It's just . . . I never know.

RC: I understand that you're currently working on a book that deals with the theme of suicide.

HS: Well, not really suicide. I think what the theme is . . . It's hard for me to say, because this thing evolved from a joke, just like Requiem for a Dream evolved from a joke. It might be simply, having a purpose in life. The thing started, this guy is very despondent; he's very unhappy. So, he's trying to figure out how to kill himself. And eventually he decides he going to—this is a long thing—but he finally decides he's going to get a gun and blow his brains out. And so, he goes to get a gun, and they need information to okay it; you know, to get a permit, whatever it's called. And the computer system breaks down, and he has to wait five days. And so he becomes pissed off at all this, and in that five-day period he goes from being suicidal to homicidal. So he figures he'll kill this guy at the Veteran's Administration who's been breaking his balls. He doesn't want to just murder him; he wants to make it look natural, so he doesn't have to pay a price. So he goes on the internet and finds out how to culture ecoli and salmonella bacteria. And to make a long story short, he drops it in the guy's Coke one day at lunch, and the guy actually dies. And he goes and he visits the body, and he's just really delighted over this, really happy–"I killed a man; I killed a man!" And then, of course, he's even more depressed than ever. And he sits around for about three days with the gun barrel in his mouth, hoping that if he can't pull the trigger, maybe he'll fall down and accidentally pull the trigger. So then the TV is on, and suddenly something captures his ear. They're talking about the 30th picnic and barbecue celebration in some place, and you get the very distinct impression it's Mississippi. But what it is, is thirty years before, when they were integrating the hospitals for Medicare? The doctors were going all over the country doing this. And there was a black doctor working in this particular town, and he was murdered. And everyone knew that this guy had done it. Then they brought him to trial, and they found him not guilty. And everyone celebrated, right after the trail, with a barbecue and picnic. And every year since then, they have this barbecue and picnic celebration. So this guy–"Ah, ha!"—now he has a purpose to his life, see? So he's going to get this guy, and he'll get this guy in the same icoeli kind of manner. But then what he'll do is, he's going to see if he can start a mafia war between different gangs and have them eliminate each other. He's going to go around—I don't know how many; three, four different cities—and blow up some mafia people, hoping they'll all start shooting each other and all that kind of . . . Anyway, it was one of these kind of things that happens.

RC: And you're currently working on this?

HS: Yeah.

RC: What about writing in the first person? When I read the little that's available about your biography, about your life, it seems to me like it would be a natural for you to write in the first-person. Is your memoir in the first-person, I assume?

HS: Oh well, yeah. And this waiting period thing that I just told you about, the suicide guy, that's first-person . . . There's actually no narrator. There's actually no narrator at all. It's all inside this guy's head, like in The Room. There's no narrator, but there is a commentator that kind of pops up every now and then. Sometimes he seems to be the devil, and sometimes he seems to be Jesus. I don't know who he is. He just pops in and out. And makes comments about things.

RC: Maybe back to that thing about the two sides, the two faces, right?

HS: Yeah, who knows? [Laughs]

RC: I know you listen to Beethoven every day, and you've mentioned Celine, who's a very musical writer. When you're writing, do the words sort of come in rhythm or melody?

HS: Yeah. Depending upon what's needed. See, I always try to fulfill the responsibility to the story; whatever is needed at the moment. But yeah, I write by ear. Yeah, the rhythms of the writing, even in the narrative, are important. For instance, if I'm writing a narrative about a particular person, dealing with a particular person, the rhythms, the syntax, and so forth should reflect that person's personality.

RC: It's one of the reasons your writing is so beautiful, and different, from so many other writers. Are there any nonfiction writers or books that were a big influence?

HS: Well, maybe when I was a kid I did read one book. And that was called Heroes of Science. And it had Edward Jenner, Lavoisier, and . . . Oh, I can't remember the various scientists. But I do remember reading that book. And I remember when I was eight or ten years old, making a decision that I was going to find a way to stop the suffering in the world. [Laughs] And you know, I think about it and it really wasn't an ego-trip. It wasn't like, "I'm going to do this."

RC: It wasn't coming out of a power complex.

HS: No, it was a real, sincere thing. I was that kind of kid. You know, I really . . . I guess I had by that time seen enough suffering. And I just really wanted people to stop hurting each other.

RC: You said that you don't know much about your dad. I imagine your mom must have been an incredible influence on you.

HS: Yeah. They were both very, very influential. My mother's a very strong, powerful woman. And my father was a drunk. He died drunk at the age of 78, so it wasn't like a premature death. And I've just cloned myself after my father. Oh, in so many ways. Violent, drunk, maniacal. I left home and went to sea, and he went to sea. And oh, just . . . oh, all that kind of stuff. But at the same time, my mother was a reader. But she just couldn't stand bad language! [Laughs] I used to get a bar of lye soap in my mouth for using words like lousy. But at the same time, she got me to museums periodically. At least a couple of times a year we went to museums, things of that nature. My father went back to sea in 1942, and I always had a part-time job after school or before school, whichever. Which meant I used to work a half a day Saturday, and quite often we'd meet, go to a movie, and once we saw Othello, with Paul Robeson. Oh! Boy, what an experience that was! And so . . . there was a balance. You know, as we've said, there are no absolutes. There was a lot of conflict. I wanted to please my mother, and I wanted to please my father. And so [Laughs] . . . it's pretty hard to please them both, when they were so opposite in personality. So I was always caught up in this conflict.

RC: Was your father kind to you? Was he loving to you?

HS: Well, not overtly. I realize now, he felt so incredibly inadequate, he didn't know what the hell to do. You know, there's one thing I do know about him is, he was twelve years old, he was all alone in the world, and working in a coal mine. So, you know, that's not exactly a great background to bring to a marriage. His mother died when he was very young. He comes from Island, Kentucky. And then, when he was about twelve, I guess, his father died and his step-mother just packed up and left. So he went to live with an aunt in Indiana and worked in the coal mines. And he was just a little guy.

RC: And your mother, I would imagine, was more overt with her affection?

HS: Oh, yeah . . . And she sang in the same choir for more than sixty years. She'd still be there but she can't get out of bed.

RC: How old is she now?

HS: She's eighty-nine.

RC: What does she think of your work? What was her reaction?

HS: Well, I'll tell you man—her reaction to Last Exit was one of the greatest compliments I've ever gotten. Because I told you her thing about language.

RC: So if "lousy" was a bad word, what did she think of Last Exit?

HS: Well, she read the book and this is what she said. She said: "Oh, those poor people." Wow. So I mean, I really must have succeeded in doing what I planned to do, and that is, put the reader through an emotional experience, because the experience of reading that book transcended all her prejudices, her ideas, her beliefs, and just responded to the pain of the people. It's the greatest compliment that I've gotten. Absolutely.

RC: Has she read all your subsequent books?

HS: I've given her a copy of each one. I don't know if she's actually read them all. I don't know if she was able to get through The Room. Some people can't.

RC: I think it's one of your best.

HS: I think it's the most disturbing book ever written by a human being. But I think it's a masterpiece.

RC: Is that your own favorite book, of all your work?

HS: Well, I can't say it's a favorite. In one sense it is because . . . After I finished writing that thing, I stayed away from it for 12 years. It was really disturbing. And then I went back to it, and I was just delighted because in Last Exit I was struggling so hard to learn how to write. Oh, God, I can't describe to you the pain and torture, every night for six years trying to learn how to write. And so I'm so involved in it I can't see what I'm learning. But in re-reading The Room all those years later, I could see so clearly how in Last Exit I had learned how to write. Because I learned how to put down a simple line—that is so simple and so obvious that hopefully contains a certain degree of profundity.

RC: So you were really channelling that creative will through you in a much easier way.

HS: I had acquired tools and techniques that I could utilize whenever the need arose. I could see that, when I re-read The Room. I think it's a remarkable book. I really do.

RC: I agree with you. What's incredible about that book is that it has a real minimal beauty to it. The setting is a single room. The characters are just one person. The dialogue is a monologue. Were those intentional things, or was that just something that evolved?

HS: Well, the basic premise of the book was totally musical: Variations on a theme. And I wanted it just as simple, as simple, as simple as possible.

RC: Was there any particular thing that inspired that idea, that concept, to create a sort of minimal masterpiece?

HS: It grew out of a story called "The Sound." I don't know if you remember that story or not.

RC: Is that in Song of the Silent Snow?

HS: Yeah. A guy is locked in a cell, and he hears a strange noise, and he's looking out and he becomes scared and so forth. Turns out he's having DTs. But that's where that originated. That was the germ of the idea for The Room.

RC: I understand that you were actually locked up for a month.

HS: Yeah. That's where those both come from.

RC: Was that the germ for the short story then?

HS: Yeah. As a matter of fact, I wrote that in jail. I was in solitary a month, and then I was in population for a month.

RC: Why did they put you in solitary? Because you were detoxing?

HS: Yeah. And because . . . This wasn't solitary like in the hole. This was, you know—A Single Occupancy Room—a SRO! [Laughs uproariously] Because of my tubercular history, I was put in isolation, I guess. So I had this single room occupancy cell. [Laughs]

RC: One of the most incredible passages for me in your writing, and I believe it's in Requiem for a Dream, is when everybody's hanging out in a morgue. And it's also one of the most musical passages. Everything sort of slows down, into a kind of vegetative consciousness, and everyone's kind of merged in this very sticky, gluey way. Was that something that came out of direct personal experience?

HS: No. Well, I guess everything comes out of our experience in some way . . .

RC: The setting did not come out of experience, but the experience of using heroin obviously influenced you there?

HS: Yeah; oh sure. Yeah, that sedative approach to life. [Laughs]

RC: My astrologer friends have made me promise to ask you if you know what time you were born.

HS: Oh, dear; I don't know. I think it was something like 11 a.m. And that would be New York time. But I'm not certain about that.

RC: I remember reading—maybe somewhere in the Village Voice, years ago—that you actually at one point, in desperation, because of your health, that you did turn to astrology. Is that true or not?

HS: No. No, what happened was, when I was very young we lived in a luxury building; my father was the super. 59 West 12th. Across the street from where the New School is now. It wasn't there at the time. But it was a luxury building. And there was an older lady in there that really took a liking to me. I was maybe three years old when we lived in there. And she had my horoscope drawn up by somebody that I've been told is a very famous astrologer—Alan Leo.

RC: Yeah, he was one of the older generation.

HS: Yeah, I guess he would be, because this was maybe '31 or '32 that it was drawn up. And what happened is, many, many years later, I found, I came across this; I had it, and I read it. So, I never had one made up.

RC: Was it interesting? Was it accurate at all?

HS: Well, yeah, there are some interesting things. Like: "stay away, be careful about going to sea," and stuff like that. [Laughs]

RC: Really, he said that!?

HS: Yeah! [Laughs] "Be careful of things like alcohol and drugs." And you know, "You might want to look into the arts." Things like that.

RC: Actually, he's a very respected astrologer. And he's published quite a bit.

HS: Yeah. But it doesn't say on there about what time I was born.

RC: Going back to what we started off with in the interview, one thing I wanted to ask you: Obviously you're a spiritual man, and you've developed a spiritual philosophy that comes out of spiritual experience. Was there a point in your life when that started to happen? I mean, was there something in particular that happened?

HS: Well, boy . . . You know, when you start looking back upon your life, you see it happening all along. But the big thing, the big thing was, thirty years ago, I stopped drinking. And that gave me a chance to get in touch with, shall we say, my own reality, as far as this world is concerned. Very uncomfortable! [Laughs] But that of course was the big thing. But I can look back on things that are just remarkable. We had a little thing called Poetry in Motion out here. We had poetry readings every week, for about four years. And the fun part of it was that each week they'd have a topic. Now just some arbitrary thing. You know, like fashion, passion, terminal cool, it takes one to know one—you know--sports heroes, that kind of stuff? And then you'd write something around this topic. So we had one one time, so I wrote something about it. I wrote a thing about what happened when I was about eighteen years old in the hospital. And what it was, this old guy, Hocus Pocus, he was a little old Estonian guy--we used to kind of make fun of him, 'cause he was a religious man. And he had this very deep affection for this young Greek boy. He was probably still in his teens, too; he was a Greek from Egypt. And he was going for his routine operation. Every three weeks he got another three ribs cut out. It was one of those things. And he went for his first operation, and he didn't come back for a while, and . . . well, anyway, it turned out . . . he died. So this old guy Hocus Pocus was really broken up over this. And one day he came over to my bed and he asked me to write him a letter. Now I never wrote a letter in my life--I didn't know from nothing. And I said yes. I guess I was just moved by his need. So he said he wanted to write a letter to Alex's--that was the boy's name--Alex's parents, and say he was a good boy, and we're sorry. So, I don't know, somehow I wrote a letter, and it met with his liking. And we mailed it. And then we got a reply back. And the parents said they were so happy to hear from us, and that sort of thing. And they exchanged a few letters. And then I realized, as I was writing this--and I wrote this forty years after the fact--that first, in the story itself, I say, Why did this guy ask me to do this? There were plenty of people in this ward who were better qualified--everybody was better qualified than I was. In addition to that, they had Gray Ladies there, social service, anybody . . . But he asked me. And the conclusion I came up with--and this only happened as I'm writing (see, that's why I say I don't know what I have to give, until I'm in the process of giving it away)--so, as I'm writing this thing, on the paper it says, Because I was in more need of the miracle he was offering than anybody else. And because I had said yes to life, I found out that I always have within me the infinite resources necessary to fulfill my responsibility at the moment. And what he was giving me was the gift of love. The gift that I could love. And then later on, I realized--and again, this is maybe forty-two years after the fact--that is where I made the decision to be a writer. Now I know that absolutely. Now, I may be talking about a spiritual decision. But that is where it really originated. I said yes to writing a letter.

RC: So, in a sense, this is your spiritual raison d'etre, what you're doing.

HS: I believe so. But see, the first thing I believe I mentioned was that he gave me the gift of love. That's the first thing I recognized. The gift of love. That I could commit a loving act. And that was vitally important to me, because I thought I was the lowest form of animal life in the world. I was totally incapable of loving. And I wanted to be loving more than anything--more than I wanted life itself. And it tortured me.

RC: It sounds like you were very torn between these two polarities that were somehow personified by both your parents. Is that correct?

HS: Well, yeah, I guess personified by them. But it was my own judgments that really tortured me. I always felt that way, all my life. I just . . . and there's no reason for it, no reason in fact . . . I just thought I was evil.

RC: And you don't know why?

HS: No. Just . . . the way it is.

RC: You know, when we read things about you, writers always sort of draw this vertical line: Before the illness; after the illness. Do you feel that? Or do you feel something else that is a continuity, that is not separated in that way. I mean, did it fundamentally change you?

HS: Oh, yeah. Well, yes, absolutely.

RC: Your soul?

HS: Well, no; I don't think it changed my soul. But it certainly changed my perception of it. And it changed my perception of my place in this world. See, I had no education, I left home at fifteen. And when I was a kid, I was a very physical kid. I was maybe six feet tall; 170 pounds. I was just a physical kid. And now, all of a sudden, I have all these ribs [removed] . . . I'm just devastated. The physical world is no longer my friend. I can't function in the physical world. And I am terrified. Now let me tell you something I just remembered that's indicative of the opinion I had of myself. When I was finally brought back to this country, they said I was going to die. They didn't tell me, they told my mother. And they had me in this little, itty-bitty room. It was just big enough for the bed. They just stick you in there to die. And when I was in there I couldn't lie down, I had to sit up in bed all the time, because I couldn't breath. And it was like, I gasped for air; you know, I just . . . always gasping. And I remember so clearly the thought that just went through my head. It was: God put me here in order to atone for all my sins. Now, what in the hell kind of an opinion did I have of me?

RC: Where did that come from?

HS: Don't ask me! But that's the opinion I had of me. And I told this to a shrink once. And then he says, Well, what did you do that was so terrible you deserved to die like that at the age of eighteen? And I lay there a while [Laughs]--I had no answer! Finally--this is so insane, when I think about--the only answer I could come up with after many minutes of thinking was: I quit school. Now, isn't that insane?! That's the kind of thing I'm working with internally! [Laughs] I quit school. But in a sense, I mean, if you know the whole background, it does make a little sense. Because my parents wanted me to be happy. They wanted me to go to school, get a good job, and so forth. And I left school. And that hurt them. So in a sense, it does make some sense. But still--that's really crazy.

RC: Could it have been reflective of the fact that unbeknownst to you at that time there was a real, higher self trying to work its way through you . . .

HS: You mean like maybe when I thought I was locked in hell I was at the gates of heaven? [Laughs]

RC: Well, maybe! What I was thinking of is . . . I consider you to be the greatest living American writer . . .

HS: Oh, thank you.

RC: . . . and a lot of other people feel that way, too. And at 18, there was probably something in you that also realized that, but that had not yet worked its way into your conscious mind. And perhaps quitting school was somehow a symbol of this fear that that might not come through somehow. That higher self might not incarnate somehow.

HS: I never thought of it along those lines.That's quite possible, isn't it? I never thought of it that way. But I think it was the quitting school--in other words, the sink or swim syndrome. I had no resource, no recourse, no nothing. You're going to either write or die. But I suspect the moral aspect from my point of view was more important. The fact that inside of myself, I knew I hurt my parents by leaving school.

RC: And you also describe yourself as being a very empathetic child, and adult as well. And this is what I get, even when I read Last Exit, which as you've said somewhere else, you said something like: There's no light in this book. And the reader is forced to turn to his own light, you know, inside. There's no relief in that book. Except for maybe that story, "And Baby Makes Three"--which I think is a fun story!

HS: [Laughs] Well yeah. And that was there just for that reason. I put it right there just because I had the sense that if I don't change the tempo of the music, that the rest can start to become a monotone and lose its power.

RC: I see. But in Last Exit, there's an authorial presence, your presence is in the book, and we feel it during those brief moments of empathy when Georgette imagines a different world. And there are other characters in other moments in that book when that occurs. Is that an intentional part of what you tried to do in Last Exit? Or was that you just who you are "leaking" into the book?

HS: Well, it must just be leaking, because I never wanted me to be in there in any way whatsoever. But as I said, I put the reader through an emotional experience--I have to write from the inside out. And it seemed absolutely essential that that romantic image that can be so lyrical within Georgie, at the same time so deadly, be expressed.

RC: What did the guys in Brooklyn think when you published Last Exit? Did any of them read it?

HS: Well, a couple of them read at least part of Last Exit. And . . . [Imitating a Brooklyn accent]: "Say man, this ain't the way it was!" [Laughs]

RC: They said that!?

HS: Yeah, they all said the same thing! [Laughs]

RC: Were they just giving you a hard time?

HS: No, no! It's just, you know--poetic licence! I mean, it's based on my experiences in life, but--"It's not the way it happened." [Laughs]

RC: Were any of the stories in Last Exit actually things that happened a little bit that were exaggerated?

HS: Well, yeah. A little bit. "And Baby Makes Three," it was kind of . . . that sort of happened. At least part of it.There was a time when somebody was fucking around with a knife and stabbed Georgie.

RC: So Georgie really existed?

HS: Oh, yeah. Georgie's very real. "Tralala"; there was a person named Tralala. I never saw her. But that's the only connection with reality, is the name . . .

RC: Two last things that pop into my head--let me throw these out at you. Why is there so much homosexuality--you know, drag queens--in Last Exit? Why does it happen so frequently? And the other question I wanted to ask you: You were talking about how you felt, like you were at the bottom rung of humanity. How do you feel about yourself now?

HS: Oh, I've come to terms with all that. Mostly by correcting the errors I've made on the outside; doing all I can to compensate for any pain and misery I've caused people. And through these experiences that we've talked about . . . I get a greater glimmer of my reality. So I just don't believe the lies that go through my head anymore. And the homosexuality really stems from just Georgie, for one thing. And there is this connection through it, so that the guy in "Strike" is actually going out with people that were introduced to him through Georgie. So that's just the thread. It just starts with Georgie, who's just a neighborhood kid. And then he brings around some of the others, and that kind of thing. Also, you must remember that most of these guys that we're talking about here, writing about, had been in the joint for a while. So, fucking young boys in the ass is S.O.P. [Standard Operational Procedure.]

RC: [Laughs] That's true. Because you do even use the word "con" at some point in the book; you say "a bunch of cons." And someone "had never hung out with cons before," one of the girls.

HS: Yeah, right. I remember once seeing a couple--two males--on a subway, many years ago. And this one guy had the real typical Irish ex-con look. And he was big. And he just had that look. And he had this frail looking little guy with him, and they were holding hands, you know--but nobody was going say anything! [Laughs]

RC: And what was the origin of "Psalm 16"? What gave you . . . because I think that's got to be one of your most incredible short pieces. I was telling my friends that when I die, I want the priest to read this at my funeral!

HS: [Laughs] Really? Well, that was those poetry readings I was telling you about. And the theme one night was "Song of Forgiveness." And this is what I ended up writing. A song of forgiveness. I'll tell you something interesting about that. I sent a copy to my mother and . . . she was still ambulatory at the time, so it must have been like maybe ten years ago. And she showed it to her pastor, in her church. And he wrote to me asking if he could have a copy of it to use. He said, "I never read religious literature because it's just too easy. But you ask hard questions." So [Laughs] . . . he was fascinated by it.

RC: That's an amazing little story. Of course he'll probably never read it at the church, but still, it's a great story! I was reading Van Gogh's letters the other day, and noticed that Vincent sent a copy of one of his sermons to his brother, Theo.

HS: Yeah, Vincent was a preacher up there, in the Belgian coal mines, for a while. He was a religious fanatic. He just couldn't come to terms with it. You know, God is love--and look at the suffering. Who can come to terms with that?

RC: I guess it's one of those questions that will always haunt mankind.

HS: Yeah, as long as we have that personalized God.

Thanks to Joseph Krausman for providing the following notes and information:
1. Josephine Hendin wrote The World of Flannery O'Connor and Vulnerable People: A View of American Fiction Since 1945.
2. Dotson Rader is an author, columnist and interviewer. He wrote books on Truman Capote and Tenessee Williams.
3. A "Gray Lady" was a Red Cross volunteer who provided non-professional services. They got their names from the gray uniforms that they wore.

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Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 1999 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 1999

AN INTERVIEW WITH ALEJANDRO JODOROWSKY

Interview by Jason Weiss

Known above all as a film and theater director, Alejandro Jodorowsky (Chile, 1930) began by working in the circus and with marionettes. In 1962, with Arrabal and Topor, he founded the Theater of Panic in Paris, where they staged many happenings. His films, several of which have achieved cult status, include Fando y Lis (1969), El Topo (1971), La Montaoa Sagrada (1973), Tusk (1979), Santa Sangre (1989), The Rainbow Thief (1990) and Viaje a Tulún (1994). Not only was he the director, but he also wrote the screenplays, composed the music, and often acted in his films. A noted author of comic books as well, his work includes AnÌbal V, in Mexico, and the Inca Azul series with drawings by Moebius in France. Among his several novels, Donde Mejor Canta un Pájaro (1994) offers an exuberant blend of magical realisms, in both the Yiddish and Latin American traditions, transforming his own genealogical tree into a story of myths and fables.

Jason Weiss: First, a bit of chronology. When did you first arrive in Paris?

Alejandro Jodorowsky: I arrived in Paris in 1953, from Chile. I first studied mime there, with Marcel Marceau's teacher, Etienne Decroux. A year later, I entered Marceau's company and I stayed five years. We traveled throughout the world, and I returned to Paris. Then, I also worked in music hall in Paris, I directed Chevalier. I was doing that for two years, it was very successful. After, I left for Mexico. During my stay in Mexico, I returned a number of times to Paris to found the Theater of Panic with Arrabal and Topor, and to do the efÌmeros (happenings). Then I returned to Mexico. After Mexico I was in New York for two years, and I made The Holy Mountain. Later, I went back to France. And for fifteen years now, I've been living in Paris, in Vincennes. But always traveling.

JW: What attracted you to Paris?

AJ: It was always a question of work. I wanted to do mime, and the only school for mime in the 1950s was Marceau's in Paris. And later, I would get calls to do a film or to do theater. In the last fifteen years, I decided to give a conference every Wednesday, to create an individual university which I called Cabaret Mistico. It was always full. So, from that moment on I gave tarot classes, I did studies on what I call psychogenealogy--I study the genealogical tree of the person, it's like a collective therapy, psychomagic, they're therapies--I wrote books. And I had quite a large following. So I stayed in Paris because it's always been full there to this day.

JW: Where did you do this work?

AJ: Different places. Sometimes in a school of mime, later for a long time in the university at Jussieu, and now I do it in part of a space I own which is a dojo for karate.

JW: How did you advertise it?

AJ: I never advertise it, since I started, and it's free. At the end people make a collection to pay for the space, like in a church. But it's by word of mouth, there's never been any publicity in fifteen years. Because I decided precisely to show that what people think is necessary, is not.

JW: Did Paris signify something special, something magic for you before you went?

AJ: Yes, because in Chile the important thing at that time, in the '40s and '50s, was poetry. There was Neruda, and Huidobro. Vicente Huidobro, his mother had a literary salon in Paris, and he was quite well known there. So all of us Chileans went to Paris as to the literary center of the world and of poetry. It was a myth. So of course I went to Paris for that.

JW: Did you meet Huidobro when you were young?

AJ: No, Huidobro was already dead when I started in literature. I met Neruda, Nicanor Parra, in Chile. They were my masters in poetry. And Enrique Lihn, he was a great friend and my teacher, a great poet.

JW: When you arrived in Paris for the first time, did it correspond to your image of the place?

AJ: It was terrifying, because Chile is a small place and also I came without much money. And I arrived without speaking a word of French. The first day I ate a sandwich jamun--sandwich jambon--and then in the market I would point with my finger to the fruit I wanted. I learned French in the street, see. So Paris was very impressive, it still is. For a while I think New York was more powerful culturally, probably in the '80s or the '70s it was, but not anymore, Paris has a tremendous cultural development at this point.

JW: When you arrived in '53, whom did you know?

AJ: When I arrived existentialism was going on, and since I'm an explorer I really got involved with the last remnants of the existentialists, this was before hippies. I was really in contact with the existentialist core, people who were like the punks of that time.

JW: How did you find them?

AJ: By chance, they'd be walking around Saint Germain des Prés. There was a Chilean, who went about doped up on something called élixir parégorique. Paregoric was for diarrhea, it had a lot of opium. So he would buy medicines and take them by the liter. You can imagine the kind of person he was. So, he introduced me to that group, which I didn't belong to because you had to get drunk and high all day long. It wasn't for me, I was a mime, it was no help to me. But it was the first type of people I met in Paris. That is, people who must be legends now. After, I thought to go over to the Rue Cujas by the Sorbonne, where the great myth of the Sorbonne was Gaston Bachelard. It was very interesting meeting him. And in the same street the poet Nicolás Guillèn lived in exile, for example, you could run into him every day, or Violeta Parra, the singer, she was a friend of mine. They were the intellectuals who had been expelled from their countries. That was in '53, '55, up into the '60s. There was a place called L'Escale, on Rue Monsieur le Prince, where everyone went to dance and especially to meet French girls who liked South Americans. The only place where you could get yourself a French girl. We'd be there all night long. Latin Americans would come from all over to sing there, later the songs became quite famous.

JW: Were you looking to be with Latin Americans, or did you try to meet French people as well?

AJ: I'd end up with cases like El Greco, who was Argentine, he committed suicide writing the word fin in his own blood. He was one of the first conceptual artists, he filmed people in the street, he did a show where there were only white canvases... I met people like that. It was hard to meet French people. There was a big rejection from the French. So I was making friends with Latin Americans. I knew Marceau, of course, that was something else, and by way of him I managed to step outside of the Latin American world.

JW: What was your first encounter with André Breton?

AJ: I arrived in Paris around one in the morning, and from a café on Saint Germain called the Old Navy I called him. I said, I've just arrived. He asked me who I was. I said Jodorowsky. He said, Who is Jodorowsky? I told him, A young man of twenty-four and I've come to revive surrealism, here I am. I want to see you. So he said, Come tomorrow, it's very late. I said, No, now. He insisted no, so I told him, It's not surrealist of you to not see me, so it shall never be, and I hung up. Years later, we became friends. But it was pitiful, I found myself with an old invalid. He was like a great puritanical functionary by the '60s.

JW: Did you consider your experience after Chile as exile?

AJ: In Chile I was doing fine, but I reached a point where I couldn't learn anything more. So I took a boat and never returned. I broke off. No one threw me out. So I never felt myself an exile, I could return whenever I wanted. But I did feel myself a foreigner throughout the world. That is, I left Chile in '53, and I returned in '90.

JW: Did you keep in touch with family there?

AJ: I left my family, I broke off with them. I would never see anyone again. I broke off with everything. It was like death. It was something else over there.

JW: There were never encounters with such people when they came to Paris?

AJ: Yes, there was, I could see them. But it wasn't important.

JW: Why did you break things off like that? For personal reasons?

AJ: It was metaphysical. I wanted to live without roots. I wanted to have an imagination without limits. I didn't want to have a nationality.

JW: In your work as a writer you were already writing poetry as an adolescent, and later you did a lot of theater. But when did you start writing novels, was it much later?

AJ: Always, but I didn't publish. I started publishing in Chile in '90, because they offered it to me. In Chile I was immediately a bestseller. But what is it to be a bestseller in Chile? And in the last three years I've started to be translated. So one could say I'm just starting.

JW: And when did you start as a director, rather young?

AJ: Yes, I directed marionettes. I was already quite well-known in Chile.

JW: A question about scandal, which you rather seem to like. Where did your taste for scandal come from?

AJ: Every artist wants to be well-known. When one is not well-known, a scandal is marvelous because everyone knows you. At the same time it's very hard. Scandal provokes censure, so you have to be able to put up with that. Scandal followed me, I never sought it out. Like in Mexico, I'd make a film, it caused a scandal, I'd do a play, it caused a scandal. Because of the limits of the country. Because the society wasn't ready.

JW: Did having that reputation in Mexico pose certain limits?

AJ: A lot. There came a moment when I left. Because they threatened me and my family with death. After, I returned.

JW: But scandal in Mexico is not the same thing as scandal in Paris.

AJ: Because Mexicans like it. They adore scandal. The whole country takes an interest, the tabloids. Scandal in Mexico is a tradition.

JW: And it's not like that in France?

AJ: No, it's very difficult to cause a scandal in France. In Spain as well it's difficult. But the two are different. In France it's difficult because they're very Cartesian. In Spain because they have no limits, nothing surprises them anymore. After Franco they did everything, so nothing can surprise them. Arrabal caused a scandal, because he said he'd seen the Virgin Mary. He caused a scandal in reverse, he tried to pass for a saint.

JW: Why did you return to Paris fifteen years ago?

AJ: As always for reasons of my livelihood. I signed a contract to do a film, which didn't get made, they paid for my trip, my hotel. But then I stayed there after. I never chose Paris, only the first time.

JW: How was it returning to Paris? Were things very different?

AJ: Paris is a city that changes very little. One of the big differences about that city is the outskirts and the new buildings. But Paris itself is always the same. Now, wherever you go in the world today, you find the same change. Everywhere, be it Chile, Argentina, Paris, the only thing people think about is making money. The desire to confirm oneself economically everywhere, while other values count for less now, it's like that with the young and everyone else. But I'm very hopeful. For twenty years it's been like that, twenty years from now it won't be. Things keep changing, it'll be something else. I think the world is going to be more spiritual.

JW: Even without having the sense of exile, do you sometimes feel a certain nostalgia as a foreigner?

AJ: The thing is, I grew up as a foreigner. Look, my father was a Jew who tried to pass for a Russian. My mother was half-Russian, because a Cossack raped her mother, and she tried to pass for a Jew. So I was Chilean and not Chilean, because I was the son of immigrants. So I was trying to pass for a Chilean, but never completely. I was never anything. Therefore, the only exile I know is the exile from myself. Because I was never myself. The nostalgia I would have to get back to myself, what am I? But not what am I as nationality. What am I as a spirit without limits. I have limits. So each day I try more and more to go toward the anonymous which is precisely the impersonal. To try to be an impersonal person. I don't think in terms of cities now. I think of the planet. I don't think in terms of nationality. I think of human beings.

JW: Did you always feel this way?

AJ: Little by little I tried to. In the beginning when I arrived in Paris, every day I wrote a letter to Chile. For a year I wrote a letter to a girlfriend every day, telling her my impressions, living it as the great adventure of Paris. Until finally I got tired of it, I didn't write anymore, I told myself if I write, I don't live... But if you ask me, where do I want to die? I don't have a place, for me. The land where I'm going to die is the undertaker where they'll cremate me. Nothing else. I don't need a grave anywhere. Where should they throw my ashes? I don't know, they can eat them or make a cake, I have no desire for my ashes to be scattered anywhere particular. I say it sincerely. When you say to me, what is your nationality? I look deep inside me, and I don't have any.

JW: At what point did you come to this feeling?

AJ: Look, when I was fifteen, I tore up all my photos. In order to not have any memory of myself as a child or anything, and to not get attached to photos. Later, I broke with the country. Later, I'm in France, I left France. Later, I left Mexico. In every place I was going away, I was always escaping. Now I'm at the problem that I don't know anymore who I am, and where I'm going and what I'm going to do. I've got contracts for the next six months. After, I don't know. Now they're translating me as a novelist. I'm a success in France. I'm doing fine. I've always done fine. I'll be successful, they'll publish me. And then what? I'll do another. And then what? I'll do another. And then what? Or I'll do another film. And then what?

JW: Connected to the question of where you want to die is the matter of your archives, the work you've done. Where do you think they should be kept?

AJ: Anywhere, it's all the same.

JW: Did you get along well with Latin American writers in Paris?

AJ: Yes, yes... I'd go eat with Jorge Edwards, for example. He's my friend, I've known him since I was a child. I also know García Márquez, I'd eat with him, it was nice. But not a deep friendship . . .

JW: And the fact of doing many different things, did that set you apart?

AJ: It did set me apart, because society is used to a person only doing one thing. In France they disparaged Cocteau because he did a lot of things, and yet Cocteau was brilliant. Now they're realizing that Cocteau was brilliant, they're discovering Cocteau. It seems the only one who was permitted to do a lot was Chaplin. So when you do everything they say you think you're Chaplin, or you think you're Leonardo da Vinci, those are the two examples. But those are prejudices. I think there shouldn't be limits. They're prejudices that come from having a nationality, or from having a diploma, or from having a label. But it's a mistake.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 1999 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 1999

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